Trigger Warning: This article explores psychological/emotional abuse. It could have examples or references that you may be experiencing right now or have experienced in the past.

Abuse doesn’t have to be physical to hurt or harm you. It’s not always easy for someone to recognize and label emotional abuse when it’s happening to us because of how insidious it is. In fact, most often, we want to believe that our partners love us, so our view of the relationship gets muddled and as time progresses it becomes difficult to leave.

If you think you are facing abuse, remember that some jurisdictions recognize coercive control, psychological abuse and mental torture as criminal behaviour. Speaking about it to someone close to you can help you understand what’s happening to you. Do remember that breaking up or yelling at each other is not necessarily emotional abuse. Expressing anger and negative emotion is normal- it’s good to talk it out and define what each others limits are.

Abuse is a violation of your boundaries. If a situation with another individual leaves you feeling powerless, helpless, taken advantage of, your boundaries breached, your mental health affected- we can deem that as abuse.

Trust your instinct because your body knows. The only job your body is doing consistently is keeping you alive. It is on your side. So if it feels anxious, afraid, easily agitated, shows signs and symptoms of depression around someone, please try to listen to it. Anxiety, high blood pressure, digestive problems, sleeplessness, panic attacks are all red flags.

What feels abusive to you is your subjective experience. It does not need a jury that has to qualify it. Yes, sometimes our brains can rationalize and invalidate these instincts because we want to believe the best in people. But the body knows and it throws hints at us.

Emotional abuse is in the ‘how’ of the event. How a person fights with you, how they assert power, how they communicate, how they withhold affection. So arguing need not be abusive, but the language used while arguing can be — is it amplifying shame and guilt? Is it instilling fear?

The purpose of abuse is to exercise control. This behaviour can be seen in any relationship — familial, platonic, romantic, and across gender and sexual identities.

There are situations where the perpetrator may be unaware of their abusive behaviour. But abuse is still unacceptable. If they are told they are being abusive, the onus is on them to check their actions and make reparations.

If you have heard stories of past abuse from other people (abusers often describe their victims as crazy or jealous) see it as a red flag.

Here’s a checklist of how emotional abusers typically behave. (The list is not exhaustive and your partner may show a few or many of these behaviours).

  1. Bullying, public humiliation, intimidation and verbal attacks

2. Silent treatment or refusing to communicate at all

3. Withholding affection as punishment and refusing to talk about your hurt

4. Taking decisions on your behalf without your consent

5. Controlling your access to money

6. Coercive control or spying

7. Asserting themselves as the only one who can define the rules of the relationship

8. Playing mind games such as gaslighting. Denying or undermining your perception of reality and disregarding or degrading your views.

9. Blaming you for being “weak” or “over sensitive” but refusing to check their own behaviour

10. Imposing total secrecy about your sexual relationship in order to isolate you and control you

11. Behaving differently with you in front of other people or humiliating you in public

12. Threatening to leave the relationship, excluding you deliberately from things you expect to do together or limiting your involvement to undermine you.

13. Creating circular, never ending arguments that don’t take your needs into account and exhaust you

14. Criticising your interactions with others, the way you dress or live your life, acting extra possessive or constantly suspicious and probing

15. Threatening or causing harm to pets

16. Causing you financial or professional loss by neglect or refusal to cooperate

17. Sharing your private, intimate photos online without your consent

18. Ordering you to do work and treating you with disrespect. Demanding obedience or compliance

19. Acting helpless and out of control for their own behaviour

20. Showing no empathy when you are ill or in danger